With the Crow having proven my theory that our mini-village on the move was a fat target fer any raiders who happened to eyeball our horses and the big packs on six of ’em, it was time to cinch up our normally stringent security precautions jist that much tighter. Nobody disagreed; in fact, it was Cougar who first brought up the subject.
Could be his role as Daddy to them three little ones affected his thinking some, but in a good way.
From the Day of the Crow forward, we never even considered going back to a travois fer transporting the kids. Nor did we push a day’s travel, stopping early enough to git supper cooked by sunset so’s the fire could be shut down while it was still light out. In the mornings, no fire was lit till full light, both to make the flames less visible to others and to keep us from drifting into a careless routine, thinking we’d made it safely through another night.
The Indians had a number of names fer my enemy, General George Armstrong Custer. One of ’em was “Son of the Morning Star”. Sounds sweet, don’t it? It ain’t. He got the name fer his habit of hitting sleepy Indian villages, most of ’em innocent and unsuspecting, long on old men, women, and children, jist at that time. The better to slaughter you with, redskin. Got all day to do it.
A few days into the new program, we abandoned the two-at-the-rear pattern, leaving one man to push the horse herd, one to ride point, and one to scout. The men rotated, but the rest of the bunch traveled the same way every day, starting roughly thirty yards behind the point man. First, Laughing Brook, lead mare of the herd if you will, followed by little Henry on his mustang–who’d graduated to holding his own war bridle rein in a matter of days, insisting “I can do it myself!” over and over and over again till we got tired of his mouth. Turned out he could do it himself, too. That boy was some precocious, still some weeks shy of four years old and handling his own pony.
Reggie wanted to copy his big brother, sure enough, but nobody was buying that one. At two and a half, he had some growing up to do yet. The third time he tried climbing over the pack and up the horse’s neck to git at the rein–which he couldn’t have reached without falling off no matter what–Cougar’d had enough and tied him in place with a four-way guyline around his waist. The ankle-biter looked at his Daddy like maybe a tantrum was coming, but then he seemed to think better of it and settled down. How Cougar managed to influence the brat like that, I’d no idea. Things settled in right well, and I was jist grateful fer the peace of it.
Big brother got a real assignment about that time, too, with his ornery sibling’s pack mount tied off to his own pony, nose to tail. So we had Grandma in the lead with a pistol on her hip, except she usually unbelted and hung the rig over the saddle horn once we got going. Said the weight bothered her a bit if she didn’t need to shoot nobody right at that moment.
Then Henry, then Reggie, followed naturally by redheaded Mommy with her baby girl and them two shooters she kept on her hips, you dang well betcha! Of course, like I said before, she was a big, strong female; them .45’s likely didn’t feel no heavier on her than a pair of .22’s would have on Laughing Brook.
The main horse herd, of course, followed Penny.
Every man jack of us, I strongly suspected, loved scout duty more than anything else. Even them two married men, much as they loved their women–and they loved ’em something fierce, without a doubt–enjoyed getting off alone, nothing in sight or sound but somebody up ahead or off to the side who might want to kill you, steal your horses, or rape your women.
I envied both of ’em their marital bliss, but my freedom felt more precious than it ever had. Except, once in a while, the face of Stone Woman, or sometimes that young white gal Tam said had designs on me–what was her name? Sandy?–would float through my thoughts. But I could live with that.
Penny didn’t shout the question, but it cracked through our collective consciousness like a bullet breaking the sound barrier jist the same. Talk about a red alert.
We’d been following the Yellowstone River upstream fer some days now and were in fact camped fer the night within eyeshot of Yellowstone Falls, well inside the National Park declared official by President Grant jist the previous year. Maybe that had distracted us jist enough fer the adventurous youngster to go trekking off on his own without even his mother noticing till he was somewhere out of sight.
Maybe. But this was no time fer making excuses. We had a kid to find with maybe an hour of good light, the Falls thundering in the distance, and one near-panicked redhead we could see was barely holding herself together. The thunder shower had come and gone, leaving behind a rainbow that stopped well above the ground. Had he been here during the rain?
No one seemed able to remember, not fer sure.
Tam fished out the little telescope from his saddlebag while Cougar began circling the camp, studying the ground. “Here,” the boy’s father reported. “He left camp here, heading fer that little draw.” We looked where he was pointing. Our campsite was roughly level, but the rest of the steep mountain country around us was anything but. The draw, dotted with pine trees, opened out jist a few dozen yards from where we stood.
Henry Tamson, still not quite four years old, had gone there…and disappeared.
“Dad and I’ll track.” Cougar decided, assuming command by virtue of being the missing boy’s father and perhaps even a better woodsman than Tam–if that were possible. “White Bear, will you stand guard?”
“Done,” I replied, noticing his use of my Cheyenne name. I put that down to his worry about his boy.
The women were driving me nuts, trying to fret without showing it, by the time I remembered the binoculars. You didn’t see many of those out here–women or binoculars either one, but I was talking about the field glasses. In fact, I wasn’t sure many had even been made. But there’d been a pair on sale in the General Store at Waco, and I’d parted with a fair sum of money to git ’em.
After which, with the shootout and the reunion between Tam and Cougar, I’d flat-out forgotten they were stashed in my gear. Not in my saddle bags; they were both too precious and too bulky fer that, but in one of the packs.
“Anything?” Laughing Brook’s soft voice at my elbow. The girl was magnetic; she was plumb dangerous, standing up close like that.
“No. Well, I mean…nothing directly related to Henry. But…I’m getting me a hunch, or at least a piece of one.”
“Tell,” she said.
I handed her the glasses, showed her how to adjust ’em to fit her eyes and her eyesight, and pointed. “Look up there. Jist under the ridgeline, to the left of that big pine snag. See that big patch of Indian paintbrush? I mean, you can see it without the glasses, but–”
She sucked her breath in sharply. “My heart says you are right. Go.”
Seconds later, I was gone from camp, moving in those long strides that sometimes made other cowboys wonder iffen I’d been born on a horse at all. Unlike Tam and Cougar, I’d left my rifle with the women. It would only hinder my climbing and, should I be the one to find Henry, make carrying the boy a bit more cumbersome.
Besides, the Winchester could spit out fifteen rounds of .44-40 lead as fast as you could work the lever. That’s some discouragement to most attackers.
In one way, my jaunt up the hillside made no sense whatsoever. After all, there weren’t no two better trackers alive than the Tamsons, and they had powerful motivation to find the boy before he got swallowed up by darkness. Or a mountain lion. Or a grizzly. Or a stray lobo wolf, though we’d seen none of those fer the past couple of days.
But in another way, I dared to doubt my friends were going to be on top of their game this time. As good as they were, we were talking here about the father and the grandfather of the missing child. They might have that little edge of panic pushing at ’em inside, where nobody could see, and it could cause ’em to miss some little clue or to see things where there was nothing to see. Besides which, this wasn’t easy tracking ground. There were gobs of old pine needles covering most of the game trails, let alone the steep hillside itself. They’d follow the kid, all right, but it might be a slowdown process here and there, especially if he changed courses often, without warning.
And what almost-four-year-old wouldn’t?
I wasn’t but maybe forty yards from the near edge of that Indian paintbrush patch, trying to catch my breath and steady the binoculars at the same time, when I spotted him. Henry was bent over, right in the middle of all them wildflowers, apparently picking himself a bouquet. Fer his mother, maybe. Up close, I could see they weren’t jist Indian paintbrush, but a whole mix of different blooms.
He didn’t look to be in any danger jist yet, but Death don’t take don’t take long to cover the distance in this country. I was glad fer the finding, but my first thought was, It ain’t over yet.
When I put the glasses back down from my eyes, I seen the truth of that thought. A great golden eagle I’d seen spiraling way up there…was diving fer its dinner, and this day it weren’t rabbit on the raptor’s menu. One talon-pierced boy, food fit fer the king of the air.
The options weren’t good. Yelling at Henry wouldn’t help; he’d most likely jist stand up and wave back at me, and I was too far away fer the bird to scare off that easy. I cursed myself fer ten kinds of fool, leaving the Winchester with the women. With that, I coulda knocked that brown bastard right outa the sky at this range.
Tam could likely drill the thing dead center in mid-dive with his Colt from this range, but Tam weren’t here.
My .44 Russian barked and bucked in my two-handed grip before I even realized I’d reached fer the thing. Five times, missed every time. The killer eagle didn’t even know it was being shot at. Sixty yards at a diving eagle with a short gun, no shame in missing…but I’d jist killed Tam’s grandson with my inaccuracy. I yelled once, bellowing like a wounded bull, as if that might help, and ran, helpless and knowing it, as the eagle dropped the final hundred yards toward the boy who was jist looking up to see what all the shooting was about.
Twenty feet above Henry’s head, the big bird suddenly flew apart. It took me a second to comprehend, seeing them wings and feathers and feet all exploding in different directions. Some of the feathers drifted down to brush the boy’s upturned face. Then the sound of it caught up, a sound I knew: The boom of a .45-70 Government long rifle, right along with the -thwack!- of a clean meat shot. A split second later, the sharper, smaller crack of Tam’s .44-40 chimed in, but it had been Daddy Cougar’s single precision round that had saved his son.
I seen ’em then, the two Tamson men, jist lowering their long guns from their shoulders, resuming their hike up the slope from the far side of the flower patch. They couldn’t see Henry yet, nor he them, due to the lay of the land and the flowers in the way, but that would change momentarily. I pulled to a stop and arm-signalled to ’em, indicating the boy’s position–not that they’d much doubt, considering where the eagle had been pointed when Cougar shot it–and waited till they spotted the child himself.
At which point I sat down on that steep hillside without so much as having reloaded my pistol, put my head in my hands, and cried like a baby.
The night was alive, but in a way I understood and appreciated. Cougar’s wife Penny tended to snore a bit, which made me want to laugh every time. It was a human sound, not half the racket some of the drovers on the Chisholm Trail used to put out after a hard day, and it didn’t seem to bother her husband none.
Downslope a bit, the owl had finished his snack and was back on the hunt.
Not far away, the way we’d come from, a coyote pack trailed a rabbit, the pups yipping in excitement. Their Daddy paused a moment to grin at me in greeting–on the inner screen of my mind, mind you–and I give him a mental two-finger salute in return before he turned to catch up with his family.
The huge bear could have been a problem, but he’d passed us by.
Dawson was beginning to worry me some. Not in any major way; don’t ever think that. Time and again, especially here lately, he’d saved a Tamson. Back in Waco, he’d taken out the one drygulcher Cougar couldn’t spot fer the glare off that hotel front. Tonight, his volley of shots at that eagle had made us realize Henry was the big raptor’s target in time fer Cougar to blast it. Barely in time; he’d only had the one shot, and mine had been late. But my son had not missed, and his son was unharmed. That’s what counted.
I stretched, quietly, carefully, so as to keep from either waking my family or possibly alerting an enemy to my whereabouts. I didn’t think anyone was out there this night, but you don’t live this long in this country by taking things fer granted.
The owl had jist got himself another mouse.
Dawson, now. That cowboy had problems. I hadn’t said nothing, nor would I, but you notice these things. The scramble after he’d done his job in Waco, skittering around on hands and knees into the hotel doorway, squirreling around to peep back out like that…okay, a flashback to the War. Lots of veterans had those, or so I’d heard. It was what it was, and likely I couldn’t do much if anything about that.
Another bear. The same…? No, definitely another. Not as big, working a berry patch, maybe, and still several hundred yards off, farther down in the canyon. It was after all the Moon of Ripe Choke Cherries. Mean bugger, that one, but not interested in us. So far, anyway.
No, I couldn’t do a thing about my partner’s war flashbacks. In a way, they reminded me of my intermittent combat blackouts, and I couldn’t seem to do a thing about those, either. But there was something else. The man was tough as nails, loyal to a fault, salt of the Earth. He’d also been crying behind his hands up there when we’d reached Henry. Nothing wrong with that; in my world, a man’s tears don’t make him less a man, not unless he starts flowing instead of fighting when there’s fighting to be done.
They did mean something, though, and I thought I’d finally figured out what it was. The former Sergeant Dawson Trask, the stone killer who’d backed my play literally dozens of times since we’d started running together, the man who could dare Custer to draw in front of the General’s own men and who’d put together the plan that had made us all legendary enemies of the Crow…was scared to death of losing people he cared about.
Huh. Mountain lion? No…bobcat, most likely, padding through, wondering what these strange critters were, lying there in the dark in the middle of her territory. Made me think of Lynette Lynx, back on the mountain. Note to self: Ask wife about Lynette. Did she show back up after that spring?
It made sense. Dawson’s parents had died trying to cross a river when he was…fourteen or so, iffen I had it right. He’d lied about his age, joined the Army when he was sixteen, and lived to see every friend he ever had die hard during the War. There were no other relatives, not that he’d ever said.
That…that could twist a man inside. I was sure of it.
I was also sure that my friend’s fear would keep him from ever proposing marriage to a woman. Not that he didn’t want a wife. I’d come to know the man well, and you could see the longing in him when he watched the rest of us doing our family togetherness things. He wanted what we had. But he was afraid to ask a girl to stand at his side, afraid his jinx would kill her off in some darkly magical way. Today, he’d seen my grandson nearly die under the golden eagle’s talons with him powerless to stop it from happening, powerless because that would have taken some beyond-miraculous fancy shooting from a short gun or a piss-pot full of luck, and because he’d left his Winchester with the women fer their protection.
The more I thought, the more certain I became.
Well, that problem of his, I could do something about. Fer the hundredth time since I’d come on duty at midnight, I ran my wide-awake mind over the composition of the letter I’d be sending at the first opportunity.
Jist thought I’d let you know the pinto you sold to Dawson has done you proud. Even outran a Crow war party a few days back, made ’em look silly.
Beyond that, iffen you run into a cattleman or two who’s got a few head of decent longhorn brood heifers fer sale, carrying or empty makes no difference, we’d be interested in taking the batch off their hands if the price is right. Not more’n a thousand to start, no bulls, and nothing above five years of age. We’ll be crossbreeding, trying out a few different breeds to see what combination works best in Colorado Territory.
We’re still traveling, winding our way down from Montana, but should arrive at Walsenburg in time to check in with my land agent and hopefully slap up at least one log house before the snow flies.
One curious thing. My son found us in Waco, Texas. He’s with me and Laughing Brook (who I told you about) and Dawson now, and danged if he ain’t already got himself a wife and three ankle-biters! So there’s already eight of us to start this shindig a-going.
Dawson ain’t much fer writing, but he says to tell you he appreciates what you done fer him–you and Molly and Sandy all three–that day he showed up sore-footed, carrying his saddle over his shoulder.
Mail can be sent to me at: Flywheel Ranch, Walsenburg, Colorado Territory.
Or if a cowman needs hurry-up contact, he can telegraph me c/o Fred Walsen, Walsen Mercantile, Walsenburg.
Tam Tamson (the tall tale teller)
It was getting light. The mean bear had wandered back up-canyon to wherever he slept during the day. The coyotes…I didn’t know. The owl was roosting, full to the gills and making owl pellets out of the half dozen mice he’d recycled during the night. Before long, my clan would begin stirring, opening their eyes, jist waiting fer full light to start the fire.
Except fer Susan, who was already nursing at her mother’s breast.
We’d had a good night not so long ago, taking out them seventeen Crow warriors in short order, but this night had been far more satisfactory. Fourteen-year-old Sandy, niece to CJ and Molly Jackson, would show up at the Flywheel before spring thaw or I didn’t know my women. She’d be fifteen by then, or about to turn, and she’d paint Dawson right into a corner, make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Friends don’t let friends die lonely.